A single historic atmospheric theater stands out among the dozens listed on the National Register of Historic Places and on the rolls of the Theatre Historical Society of America: downtown Bellefontaine’s Holland Theatre — “Ohio’s Most Beautiful Theatre.”

Schine’s Holland Theatre opened on February 12, 1931, as a 1,400-seat movie palace. The theater was built and operated by family-owned Schine Enterprises and was one of 150 theaters across six Midwest states under their ownership. At the time the Holland opened, it had the largest movie screen in Ohio at 40 feet wide.

The Schine family commissioned Dutch-born architect Peter M. Hulsken of Lima, Ohio, to design the theater, and he incorporated features of his homeland throughout the building. The Holland is the only atmospheric theater in the United States featuring 17th Century Dutch architecture —  and the only atmospheric theater with a copyrighted design.

The atmospheric theater concept became popular in the late 1920s. Designed to evoke the feeling of a particular time and place for patrons, atmospheric theaters used projectors, architectural elements and ornamentation that evoked a sense of being outdoors. This was intended to make the patron a more active participant in the setting.

The three-story structure’s rose-colored brick exterior, with its stepped, Flemish-style gable and the Dutch cross bond pattern, would look at home on the streets of Amsterdam. The lobby features slate tile floors, hewn timber framed beams, heavy plastered walls, and the foyer is adorned with reproductions of famous Dutch paintings hung between field-paneled walls.

The auditorium was designed as a convincing representation of a 17th-century Dutch cityscape featuring near actual-sized brick and timber-framed facades of known buildings – one of which was the family home of the architect. Windows in these facades are dimly lit from within, giving the impression that the building’s interiors are illuminated by candlelight. The rounded ceiling looks like an evening sky, with twinkling stars and moving clouds. Blooming tulips wave gently in window boxes as two working windmills quietly stir the air. Coat of arms from Dutch cities and provinces decorate the proscenium arch and the balcony, and two majestic lions, a symbol of the Netherlands, guard the stage.

Grand opening night included the first showing in Ohio of “Stolen Heaven” featuring Nancy Carroll and Phillips Holmes, and Laurel and Hardy in “The Chiselers.” “Stolen Heaven” wasn’t officially released by Paramount Pictures until February 21, 1931, so the showing at the Holland would have been one of the first. Ticket prices for the Grand Opening were Adults: 40 cents, and Children: 10 cents.

In the 1970’s, the theater was turned into a Movieplex with five movie screens. Changes were made to the interior, yet the integrity of the design was maintained. Like other cities across the nation, Bellefontaine was hit hard by the shift away from downtown shopping and entertainment. By the late mid-1990s the once-grand theater had fallen into disrepair. In 1998, the Holland was closed to the public and listed for sale. 

Fearing the theater was going to be demolished, a group of Bellefontaine sixth-grade students and their teacher, Kris Swisher, took action. They organized, wrote and performed a play called “As the Windmill Turns.” Proceeds from the play provided the funds to launch efforts to “Save the Holland.”

Inspired by the children, in early 1999, a grass-roots group of concerned citizens formed Logan County Landmark Preservation, Inc. with the sole focus of restoring the theater. On December 28,1999, longtime local residents Richard and Peggy Knowlton purchased the theater and donated it to Logan County Landmark Preservation, Inc. Having memories of dating at the theater, they said at the time that they would like to “raise the curtain at the Holland” once again. 

A multimillion-dollar restoration was completed in 2019, made possible by generous support from Mick and Jane Reed, Jeffris Family Foundation, local businesses and community members. The dream of restoring the theater took shape thanks to thousands of volunteer hours by community members.

The Holland, the gem of downtown Bellefontaine, is once again providing live performances and is the place to be seen in central Ohio. Today, Logan County Landmark Preservation, Inc., DBA Holland Theatre, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 

In November 2022, the theater launched the capital campaign Light Up the Holland to raise funds to bring back the iconic marquee that originally adorned the front of the theater. Removed in the 1950s, due to building codes, that marquee is the model for a new version that will incorporate modern technology and LED lighting.

As it moves into the future, Holland Theatre will continue to draw on its proud past. Artists and audience members alike fall in love with this one-of-a-kind spot, where windmills once again turn, memories are made, and voices ring out from the stage.